For more than 20 years, Cambridge Archaeological Unit has been excavating fields lining either side of the Great Ouse, at Barleycroft Farm and Over, in the Cambridgeshire Fens. This cluster of ancient mid-river islands and ridges turns out to house surprising secrets: they seem to have been the focus of some intriguing Iron Age mortuary practices involving human body parts and bird sacrifice, as Chris Catling now reports.
The latest book to emerge from Cambridge Archaeology Unit (CAU)’s highly productive publications department is a chunky 639-page monograph reporting on two decades of fieldwork at a group of sites called the Over Narrows – ‘Over’ being the name of the fen-edge village just to the east of the area CAU explored, and ‘Narrows’ referring to the numerous long, thin islands that once characterised this landscape, bounded as it was by the many channels of the much-braided River Great Ouse. Today, drainage of the Fens and the canalisation the Ouse has left this environment dry, but LiDAR imaging clearly shows the Narrows as a series of ridges of slightly higher land, rising 3m or so above the flood plain. This watery lost landscape is beginning to re-emerge, however: having been farmed for the past 400 years or so (the former Barleycroft Farm once created the western edge of the site), the area is now slowly transforming back into a series of lakes and lagoons as a result of gravel extraction.
This is the sort of landscape that anthropologists describe as liminal – land at the boundary– and liminal land, especially that which divides dry land from water, has often been deployed by our ancestors as a proxy for the greatest threshold of all, that between life and death; humans and gods; mortality and whatever comes after.
There is a great deal of evidence from other sites around the Cambridgeshire Fens that bronze objects were being deposited in watery places as votive offerings. At nearby Flag Fen Archaeology Park, for example, you can visit an exposed section of the timber causeway and platform that Francis and Maisie Pryor excavated in 1982 (CA 96), which was constructed 3,300 years ago to enable the region’s Bronze Age inhabitants to make offerings of weapons and personal items to the watery fen.
Another parallel is the Fiskerton timber causeway discovered in 1981 on the River Witham, near Lincoln, in which the celebrated Witham Shield may well have been deposited sometime around 400-300 BC.
Perhaps the most significant of the CAU’s discoveries, however, is that Godwin Ridge – one of the islands making up the Over Narrows – seems to have been used for a similar purpose, but this time, the objects being placed into the water are more enigmatic still: the bones of many different kinds of wild bird, and human remains.
Sieving for clues
The Godwin Ridge runs on a southeast to north-west axis for around 1.4km, divided by an ancient paleochannel into two roughly equal-sized islands. The westernmost of these, which measures roughly 600m long, and ranges in width from 60 to 150m and in height from 1.5 to 3m above the flood plain, is particularly archaeologically rich – though the wealth of finds that it houses were not easy to recover, or even identify. Its soil consists of peat and alluvium overlying a more ancient landscape of sandy clay, and excavating the ridge site posed methodological challenges to the CAU team because of the scale of the site and the fact that little evidence of structures survived.
The team therefore devised a sampling strategy that involved first stripping the site down to the homogenous buried palaeosoil horizon, then sampling its deposits through test pits dug at regular 20m intervals, and sieving the soil recovered from these through a 5mm mesh. Further sampling at 10m and 5m intervals was then used to investigate in greater detail areas that had produced particularly high densities of finds. Further test pits and transects were dug wherever this density warranted it, or where the relationship between one area and another needed to be clarified. Finally, the whole site was stripped down to the geological natural in order to identify and excavate features cut into it.
The test-pit sampling method proved remarkably productive, revealing some 70,000 artefacts – a scale of discoveries that might hint at a total finds population of worked flint and ceramics in excess of a million items had the whole island been sieved. Plotting these artefact distributions identified 35 areas with high concentrations of material; the excavation report describes these as representing ‘individual sites or occupation events’, ranging in date from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age.
The Mesolithic finds (12,000 flint artefacts) and those from the Neolithic (arrowheads and ceramics) occurred in sufficient quantity to demonstrate that this was no marginal site even at this early period in its history. Furthermore, by the Bronze Age, the Godwin Ridge seems to have been divided into a number of cultivation plots, although with little evidence for settlement – instead, the ridge seems to have been farmed as an extension of the similar, but much larger, O’Connell Ridge. This lies immediately south of the Godwin Ridge and has long been known as a barrow cemetery site with associated field systems and a settlement. Occupation ceased here amidst rising marsh levels in the Late Bronze Age, and it was at this time and into the Iron Age that the higher Godwin Ridge saw intensive activity – perhaps involving the other site’s inhabitants who may have fled to the higher, dryer land.
Much of this activity was concentrated at the elevated western end of the ridge, where the land rises to a 3m-high crest. Here some 6,150 sherds of post-Deverel Rimbury plainware pottery were recovered, in average densities of 14 sherds (100g) per metre square (the highest value recorded here was 105 sherds, or 724g), and on this basis it was calculated that if the entire western spread had been sieved, the deposits would have yielded in excess of 85,000 sherds.
What puzzled the excavators, though, was the lack of evidence for structures associated with this mass of surface material. They were able to identify only the traces of three to five contemporary roundhouses, along with diverse posthole settings and scattered pits; it seems likely that any Late Bronze Age settlement features were too shallow to penetrate through the overburden into the natural, and that the stratigraphy had been disarticulated by subsequent Iron Age cultivation.